Port: It’s the Schist!
There are few wine regions of the world more romantic and dramatic as the Douro Valley in Portugal. The steep terraced vineyards that line the banks of the Douro River have been producing wine since before the Common Era. AS with most wine origin stories, Port’s roots reside in the monasteries of the region. The local monks produced a fortified, sweet wine using the ‘mutage’ technique (arresting fermentation with brandy while sugar was still present) that was discovered and brought back to England in 1678. Due to the almost constant strife between France & England, the English looked to Portugal as the next closest sea port to provide wine. While the English had been amenable to the light reds of the Minho River Valley as an alternative to the French Clarets, it was the strong, rich fortified wines of the Douro Valley that roused the English taste’s fancy. The timing was optimal for Portugal. Between England’s wars and economic sanctions with France combined with the increased European new infatuation with sugar from trade with the West Indies, Port became England’s most popular wine.
The first Port house was founded in 1638 by a German, Cristiano Kopke, four decades before the first recorded shipment from Porto to England. However, it was the English’s fascination with this style of wine that created the huge demand for these wines. By 1700, the English had founded a few of their own Port houses: Warre’s and Taylor’s. England’s love affair with the wines of the Douro continued to grow after the signing of the Treaty of Methuen in 1703. This was a trade agreement between England and Portugal that stipulated Portuguese wines would not be taxed at a higher rate than French wines and English textiles exported to Portugal would be tax free. Portugal also included a clause that the English would still accept Portuguese wines even when they weren’t at war with France.
This arrangement drove the popularity of Douro/ Port wines beyond the capacity of the Port houses. To keep up with demand, many producers began adulterating their wines with excessive alcohol, sugar and aromatics. The supply of lesser wines caused the price of Port in England to drop dramatically. In 1756, in an effort to protect their economic interests and restore the confidence in the wines of the Douro, the Portuguese government created the Companhia Geral do Vinhos do Alto Douro (Douro Wine Company). This organization was responsible for installing regulatory measures and eliminating fraudulent practices. A method was developed for grading Port vineyards and allotting each farmer’s production according to the grade of vineyard. The 335 best vineyards were classified as feitoria. Each of these vineyards were marked with stones signifying fruit reserved for the English market. Lesser vineyards, rama, were used for domestic wines. In addition to vineyard classification, the Douro Wine Company also took the steps to regulate grape prices, fixed pricing on finished wines, managed exports and monopolized the sale of Portuguese brandy (aguardente) used in the fortification process. This created the worlds’ first demarcated and regulated wine region. This organization has since morphed into the government run Douro Port Wine Institute or known locally as Instutito do Vinho do Porto (IVDP).
Fun fact: Port producers can only use the aguardente provided to them by this body. They regulate the amount so as not to glut the market with delicious Port, and drive down the prices.
The Douro Valley is made of schist, a slate-like metamorphic rock. Rich in nutrients, this fragmented slate retains water and heat which allows just enough life-sustaining elements to allow the vines to thrive in the Douro’s arid climate. The traditional Port grapes are small and thick skinned. The dry conditions concentrate flavors and sugars which makes great Port wine.
A Schist terrace wall
Schist terrace vineyards at a Graham’s Vineyard
Spanning from the Spanish border and flowing to towards the Atlantic though the City of Oporto, the Douro River Valley is home to 41,700 hectares of vines that is divided into 3 subregions: Baixo Corgo (below Corgo), Cima Corgo (above Corgo) and Douro Superior (upper Douro. The Baixo Corgo is the region with the mildest climate and most precipitation, the wines from this subregion are considered a lower quality than the other two.
Cima Corgo is the prime real estate of the Douro Valley. The majority of the famous Quintas are located within the boundaries of this subregion. It is at this point where the climate turns from Mediterranean to Continental and there is a significant increase in elevation. The arid climate and the temperature fluctuations from day to night as well as summer to winter create ideal, stressful conditions on the vines to optimal fruit for Ports. Most of the vineyards are centered around the village of Pinhão is this region’s commercial center.
Last, but not the least is the Douro Superior. The newest portion of the Douro Valley to be ‘tamed’, the Douro Superior reaches to the Spanish border and is the hardest to access. It is the warmest of the subregions and steepest. These vineyards produce excellent wine and its potential is still being discovered.
NOW TO THE WINE!
Making wine in the Douro is not for the faint of heart. The slopes range from 30 to 70%, the weather is unrelenting and the harvesting of grapes is extremely difficult and hard work. Because of the steep terrain and the narrow terrace shelves, hand harvesting is the norm. There are one or two rows of grapes on each terrace, the process is slow and physically exhausting. With the population moving toward city centers, finding enough grape pickers for optimal harvest is increasingly difficult. Though there are innovations taking place at some houses to create a mechanical harvester, but considering the terrain, this process will be ongoing.
After the grapes are collected, they are transported to the wineries. Because these structures are built on hills and pre-date modern technology, the wineries are gravity fed. What is old is new again! On the top floor, the grapes are dumped into the lagares, or treading tanks where traditionally the fermentation process was started by human stomping- think Lucy and Ethel… Thankfully, there are modern improvements to this portion of Port production that is more efficient. First, grape stomping is VERY COLD and Hard work (think of sludging through thigh deep mud). Second, this is inefficient, do you think they squished each and every grape every time? But I suppose you had to work with what you had back then.
Traditional Stone lagar
Today, there are modern lagars that are developed by the Symington winemaking team that is an open stainless steel vinification tank where automated treaders, powered by compressed air, replace the human foot in pressing the grapes. It is designed to replicate the gentle treading action of feet and the tank recreates the shape and capacity of a traditional stone lagar (about 15 pipes or Port barrels). The lagar is shallow with a large surface area to allow high contact ratio between fermenting grape juice and grape skins. This gives the Port its deep, rich color and concentration of flavor.
After the grapes have fermented and reached the appropriate sugar levels, using the force of gravity, the juice flows from the lagar to the oak or chestnut vats on the level below. Once the fermentation has reached the sugar levels designated by the winemaking team, the aguadente, aka brandy is added to stop the yeasts from eating anymore sugar. In the pre-train era, the barrels would be rolled down to the Douro and placed on flat bottomed boats called Rabelos and shipped down to Vila Nova de Gaia, across from the city of Oporto. It is in this historic city that the Port houses would age the wines and get them ready for exportation. At the time, the river was the most efficient way to move the barrels to the coast. Of course, there were the obstacles and dangers that are associated with river travel that sometimes claimed barrels of Port and lives. Today, this is done by rail or truck.
Azulejo image of Rabelo shipping Port barrels down the Douro River.
There are many Port houses that make amazing wines and each house has a distinctive style that is unique and has different applications within the imbibing culture. I’ve showcased these houses because I believe they represent a good survey of Port styles and have had highly rated Vintage Ports in the past two years that I would like to share with you!
The House of Dow
The House of Dow has a rather unusual story compared to most great Port houses. Bruno da Silva, a Portuguese merchant from Oporto, made a journey to England in 1798, a journey opposite of the first British merchants. He married an Englishwoman and assimilated into London society where he developed a reputation for his fine wines. For safe passage for his wine casks during the Napoleonic Wars, he was granted a ‘letters or marque’, or royal permission to equip a merchant ship with guns. He was the only Port Company to transport his casks of fine Port from Oporto to Bristol, England under its own armed protection.
As the firm grew and their sphere of influence expanded, partners were taken on. First there was Frederick William Cosens (Silva & Cosens) and then came George Acheson Warre, of the Port famous Warre’s, who developed their holdings in Portugal. In 1877, Dow & Co, another leading Port company known for their Vintage Ports, came on board and it was decided that the newly formed conglomerate would take the Dow name.
In 1961, the Symington family purchased Dow & Co. along with its four vineyards in the Upper Douro Valley. Quinta do Bomfim is the finest of the land holdings and whose grapes are responsible for the signature style of full, rich fruit, balanced acidity and a dry, long finish. Dow’s Vintage ports historically and consistently score in the 95+ point range from the wine critics.
Testing the quality of the Touriga Nacional grapes at Quinta do Bomfim
William and John Graham were entrepreneurs who set out to make their fortune in textiles in Portugal. As in any business, sometimes you have to make compromises and in 1820 they accepted 27 barrels of Port as a payment. After a few bottles of these Port wines, they decided to diversify their business and committed to making the best Port wines they could from the Douro Valley. They hired a young Scotsman, Andrew James Symington to run their textile business as the Graham brothers focused on the wine side. But as each story seems to go in Oporto, no one stays in the textile business when there is Port to make. Symington moved from textiles into vineyard management and passing the love of Port from generation to generation, in 1970, Graham’s was acquired by the Symington family. As stewards of Port, the Symington family continue to uphold the style and legacy of the original Graham brothers’ vision.
The original and iconic Graham’s 1892 Lodge is perched atop the ridge on the south side of the Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia, is still a working cellar where they are fix transportation barrels and age wine.
The secret to the success of Graham’s Ports is the source of their grapes: the highly regarded Quinta do Malvedos. Malvedos, Portuguese for evil, is named for the rapids that were present in front of the house before the Douro River was dammed in the 1960’s. There are many dramatic and harrowing stories involving the pioneers of the Port wine legacy that enrich the romance of the Douro River. But that’s a whole other story… The vineyard is south-facing and produces grapes that result in concentrated, well- balanced wines. There are large areas of the vineyard laid on terraces supported by dry stone walls that were built by hand in the 18th century. This is also home to the revered ‘Stone Terraces’ vineyards that represent the crown jewel of the Graham’s line of fine Ports.
The Stone Terraces Ports are not made every year but represent the ultimate expression of this area. These Port wines are literally made from about 1-2 acres of very specific vines, which is why they garner a rich price, but are very much worth the investment.
Graham’s Ports are known for their richness and concentration with long-term ageing capabilities.
The Stone Terrace Vineyards at Quinta dos Malvedos
Quinta dos Malvedos Winery & historic stone terraces
Pronounced ‘Coh-Burn’, please pronounce responsibly.
Founded in 1815 by Scotsman Robert Cockburn after he visited the area while fighting under Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars. The Cockburn brand was a significant competitor in the Port landscape until the brand was almost forgotten in the three card monty of business dealings. In 1962, the business was sold to Harvey’s of Bristol, which then became part of Allied Domecq. This latter company was then taken over by Pernod Ricard. After selling off Cockburn to Fortune Brands, the Symington Family estates purchased the Cockburn name and holdings.
However, as far as the wine goes, Cockburn had a habit of going against tradition and is thought of as an innovative producer. This house is somewhat responsible for the revival of the Touriga Nacional vine. This grape, a mainstay in the Douro Valley and Port production today, accounts for 35% of the yield in Cockburn’s vineyards. In 1994, Cockburn became the first wine company to be awarded the ISO 9002 (a designation for International Organization for Standardization that creates guidelines for quality assurance in production and service)
The Style of Cockburn is somewhere between the opulence of Graham’s and the dry, strict nature of Dow’s. It has a ripe, concentrated style but with a tannic structure that balances in a robust flair.
Vineyards at Quinta dos Canais- Cockburn’s Port
There are four types of Port wine: White, Rose, Tawny and Ruby. I am focusing on Ruby port at the moment, and more specifically, Vintage Port. A Vintage Port is harvested from a single growing season. Houses can declare any yeas as a Vintage year, but it is a rare occurrence when all of the houses agree to declare a full vintage year. The wine is aged 2-3 years in a barrel before being bottled. The Port is then aged within the bottle for an additional period of time. Vintage Ports are designed to be cellared for 20-40 years. There is also a more specific single Quinta Vintage Port that some houses bottle. This would be the designation for Graham’s Stone Terraces or the Graham’s Malvedos Single Quinta Vintage Port (SQVP). For this designation, the wine must come from a single growing season (vintage) and all of the fruit must be from the specified quinta or vineyard.
The Vintage Ports
The 2016 and 2017 declared Port Vintages are the first back-to-back fully declared vintages in decades (or for some houses, a century). For the 2016 vintage, ports have a dense concentration and rigid tannic structure which bodes well for long-term cellaring. The 2017 wines are being compared to the 1945 vintage that is STILL being enjoyed today. 2017 is the first back-to-back vintage declaration in decades for the majority of Port houses. While some members of the Port community are hesitant to declaring a vintage consecutively, taste prevails. As Dominic Syminton states ‘The wines have to speak for themselves. And they are fantastic quality.’
The 2017 Vintage yielded 20 percent less compared to the 10 year average. It was an extremely hot and dry growing season in which the grapes developed great concentration of flavor. The wines have a tighter, more tannic structure. There is an intensity and grip to the 2017 Vintage Ports that are being likened to the extremely long lived and touted 1945 harvest. Truly, this is a vintage to behold.
Port is truly a labor of love. From the construction of the Schist terraces, the unforgiving climate the dangerous labor to turn the grapes into this time-honored wine, is extremely meticulous and has many opportunities for failure. However, when you sip on a port, and more specifically a Vintage Port, you are essentially experiencing a time capsule. These are the same flavors and nuances that brought countries together, crafted policy and set ships off to discover exotic lands. To drink Port is to join in the legacy of the human story!
Here are the options for these wonderful houses and these recent vintages. I was also offered some older vintages of highly rated port that won’t need to take up precious space in your cellar. I recently had the Dow’s 1994 and it might be in the top 3 wines I’ve ever had.